Mohawk by Richard Russo

  Diana hesitated, considering, but the struggle was brief. “No. I’ll try to get back in an hour or so.”

  “Come now.”


  “All right, stay. Call if there’s any bad news.” He wheeled around and started for the exit.

  “Don’t make me dislike you, Dan,” his wife said. They were the only two people in the corridor. “I don’t think I could stand disliking you.”

  He stopped, turning the chair sideways. “It was a rotten crack. I apologize.”

  “Get Fred to help you in. The lights were on in their living room when we left. They’ll still be up.”

  “Sure,” Dan agreed.

  “I mean it. You’re too tired.”

  He wheeled out to the lobby. He was tired, but he had no intention of tooting outside his neighbor’s house. Not that Fred would mind. But for some reason, he felt like risking something. Early in the day, he felt strong and had no problem pushing the chair out the passenger door, setting it up, then sliding himself into it. But when he was tired, things sometimes went wrong. Once he hadn’t secured the brake, and the chair had rolled down the sloping driveway and into Kings Road, riderless, leaving him clinging to the door handle with one hand and the roof of the Lincoln with the other until he was rescued an interminable five minutes later, the last strength ebbing out of his white fingers.

  In the lobby near the door was a pay phone, and Dan slipped in a dime. “I could use a hand,” he said into the receiver. “I’ll be the one in the souped up Lincoln with the wheelchair on the license plate. Accept no substitutes.”

  In the parking lot he chinned himself into the driver’s seat, surprised at how strong he suddenly felt. A passerby stopped to offer assistance with the chair. “Don’t bother,” he said. “Do I look helpless to you?”


  Anne pulled in behind Dan’s Lincoln. It was late, and along Kings Road the Woods’ house was the only one with lights on. The rain had stopped but it was cold, and the shallow puddles Anne stepped around rippled in light cast by the streetlamp.

  The chair, still collapsed, sat on the driveway. “Make sure the brake is on,” Dan said, and did the rest on his own. “Come in.”

  “I shouldn’t.”

  “I don’t see why not.”

  They went in through the garage, Dan flipping the switch for the kitchen overhead.

  “Guess who showed up today?” she said.

  “Lyndon Johnson. How the hell should I know?”

  “You could go along and guess wrong a few times so I could properly astonish you.”

  “It was Lyndon Johnson?”

  “No. Randall.”

  Dan frowned. “That doesn’t sound good.”

  Anne considered. “It’s hard to say. He’s always been such a strange boy.”


  “Go to hell.”

  “Actually, I was thinking of Mather and how the Grouse blood skipped a generation.”

  “I’m very much like him.”

  “You aren’t like anybody. And you’re even less like him than all the other people you don’t resemble.”

  “I’ll have to think about that.”

  “Let’s try the living room. You can build a fire if you want. We haven’t had one all winter. Her majesty doesn’t like the smell of burning wood.”

  “Another false alarm?”

  “Third one this month. They seem to coincide, more or less, with not getting her own way.”

  “Tell me about it.”

  “No. Let’s not talk about old women. Let’s drink. The liquor cabinet ought to have something in it.”

  Fourteen or fifteen bottles was all. Bourbon, scotch, brandy. Backups for each. “What do you want?”

  “Whatever,” he said. “You choose.”


  “Only if you’ll build a fire.”

  “I don’t know how, if you can believe it.”

  “I’ll show you. People start them all the time and they don’t even mean to. Did he flunk out, or what?”

  Anne opened the mesh with a poker, as if it might be hot already. “Dropped out, he says.”

  “A euphemism, maybe. Put some kindling in first. Those skinny sticks. Jesus, you really haven’t built a fire, have you?”

  “Where would I’ve built a fire in my father’s house?”

  “Enough. Now some of the small logs. Separate’em a little so they can breathe.”

  “I think he’s telling the truth. He’s always been a pretty good kid that way. I’ve known him to lie, but never to make himself look good.”

  “So why’d he drop out?”

  “He wasn’t real clear about that. Something about the war.”

  “Wad up some newspaper and push it under the grate.”

  Anne did as she was told. The cool ashes from the last, long-forgotten fire felt soft as baby powder. Dan pitched a book of matches to her. “Now open the flue.”

  “Speak English.”

  “That brass handle right there by your skull. Turn it.”

  The newspaper shriveled quickly and orange flames snaked up into the kindling, which began to glow. “He says he doesn’t think he’ll go if he’s drafted.”

  “If he’d stay in school, he wouldn’t have to.”

  “He doesn’t think that’s right, either. It’s so like him to force an issue.”

  “He’ll go,” Dan said. “When push comes to shove, he’ll go.”

  “You’re wrong.”

  Dan lifted himself out of the chair, onto the sofa. Anne joined him and they touched, rang, their snifters. “I think my father enjoyed the war,” she said. “I don’t think he saw any actual killing, and he hated the violence. But the interruption was good for him. It made him see possibilities. It’s funny, but I think that’s what Randall came home for. Not to explain to me, but because he thought maybe I could tell him what his grandfather would’ve thought.” She paused. “I thought I knew my father pretty well, but I didn’t know what to say.”

  “I’ll tell you, if you like.”

  Anne frowned. “I don’t like. I get Mother’s version all day long. You give me yours and I’ll begin to doubt he ever existed.”

  “Then you’ll be free.”

  “Don’t want to be.”

  “You’d be better off.”

  “Why are you always compelled to play devil’s advocate?”

  “Because you always benefit from reality therapy.”

  Suddenly Anne was furious, as if a spark had leapt from the grate at his command and landed right above her heart. But she didn’t raise her voice. “I’m forty years old. I’ve got a nowhere job. I’ve missed all my chances and I’m not sure I’ll get any more. I’ve got a mother who’s pleased to remind me of all this, in case I ever forget. I’ve got no husband and I’m in love with a cripple who grows fonder of his wife every day and less fond of me.… Is there anything I’ve left out?”

  “No,” he said. “You touched all the major bases.”

  “Enjoy your fucking fire.”

  Dan caught her by the wrist when she bolted up from the couch. His eyes were full. “Don’t,” he said. “Don’t go.”

  “I really should,” she said. “Besides, Di’s likely to be home soon.”

  Dan drained the remainder of his brandy and poured himself another. “Morning’s my guess. The nurses will bring a chair from the lounge and she’ll sleep by the foot of the bed.”

  Anne suddenly felt weak and sat down again. “God,” she said.

  “Try and change her mind.”

  “Randall’s probably wondering where I am.”

  “Wondering in his sleep, is he?”

  “All right. But only because the fire’s nice and the brandy’s good.”

  “That it is.”

  “I certainly wish I had money.”

  “Me, too.”

  Anne would’ve assumed he was joking, but for something in his tone. “You are joking?”

  “Just between t
hee and me, no. Di’s been thinking about going back to work. The only problem with that scheme is that the nurse we’d have to hire would cost more than she could make.”

  “You’re broke?”

  “Are we ever.”

  “Can’t you put a mortgage on the house?”

  “No, thanks. Already got one.”

  He smiled and drank off half his brandy. Anne could see he was getting potty. When he was younger, Dan could drink all night, but it didn’t seem to take much any more.

  “Do you mind my asking where it’s gone?”

  “Private hospital rooms.”


  “—pays part. I wouldn’t waste much time worrying about it. Not having money won’t bother me. It would be worth losing my vast empire if only I could see that old crow in a room full of eight or ten other black cormorants. You know I’m never willingly unkind.”

  “I wish you hadn’t told me. I’ve always felt good knowing you and Diana had some money.”

  “Have some more brandy. And put another log on the fire, will you? I can’t get warm.”

  Though the room was plenty warm enough, Anne laid on another log and it caught immediately, the whole pyramid ablaze. When she returned to the sofa, her eyes were red.

  “Oh, don’t, for God’s sake.”

  “I’m sorry,” she said. “I just feel awful, that’s all.”

  “Well, don’t. Don’t cry and don’t feel awful.”

  “I’ll feel any way I want to feel,” she said, choosing to sit at the opposite end of the sofa. “Why don’t we run away? We could be happy, don’t you think?”

  “Probably not.”

  “When you say things like that I hate you more than anyone in the world.”

  “Then I won’t say them any more. Come here.”

  She wiped her eyes and slid toward him. “Do you suppose we could do anything, or would it kill you?”

  “No, it wouldn’t kill me.”

  To shuck her clothes took no time, and then the fire’s warmth kicked in. They kissed, tentatively at first, then forcefully. “You’re letting yourself in for some disappointment,” he said.

  “No,” she breathed. “No.”

  Outside, Kings Road was quiet until the rain slowly began again.


  Around three in the morning the fire began to burn down and dampness again crept back into the living room, though Dan’s upper body was still warm. He was sleeping soundly. Anne had dozed pleasantly, but hadn’t really slept. The quilt pulled over them didn’t reach her shoulders. She snuggled into the small of his back, enjoying the warmth of his skin. She did not worry much about the possibility of Diana coming home, partly because Dan wasn’t worried, partly because the story of her love for her cousin’s husband was more the story of abstinence than adultery, and she felt certain that neither God nor Fate would be so cruel. Still, staying on seemed an unwarranted risk. Prideful even, so she slipped off the couch and quickly dressed. Once ready to go, she decided she’d better wake him. Otherwise, if Diana returned early in the morning she might find him there, his clothes in a cold, suspicious heap beside the dying embers.

  “I have to go,” she whispered.

  “No,” he said. “Stay.”

  “I can’t. Though I am willing to listen to you plead for a few minutes.”

  “I feel like pleading, if you want to know the truth.”

  “Do you need help?”

  He pushed himself into a sitting position, careful to keep himself covered, and looked around. “No,” he said. “You’ve already helped. Thanks.”

  She knelt beside him and touched his cheek. “Don’t you dare thank me. Ever.”

  “All right. Nice talking to you.”

  “Shall we get together on a regular basis?”

  “Absolutely. Once every twenty years?”

  When she turned onto Mountain it seemed like a bad idea. If she went home, fatigue was likely to set in and she’d fall dead asleep, and she didn’t want to. Not yet. She felt too completely good to surrender the moment to sleep’s neutrality. Besides, it had been a long time since she’d just driven aimlessly, and once the car warmed up she was comfortable.

  Downtown Mohawk was black and deserted, so she headed up the long hill past Myrtle Park and out onto the highway. There she had to choose between heading north into the Adirondacks or south and east toward Albany and New York. There was nothing north but blackness all the way to Canada, so she headed south toward the buzzing yellow neon, never mind that everyone in its glow was in bed. The Ford seemed to have more pep than usual and, when she stepped on the accelerator, seemed eager to strain itself forward against the cold, cleansing April rain.

  At Fultonville she turned onto the Thruway, alone except for the occasional semi. As a rule Anne didn’t like to drive, but tonight it felt good and she suddenly wanted to drive all the way to New York. If she stepped on it, she could make the city by eight or nine, just in time for breakfast. The midtown Hilton would be nice, and maybe Price was still living in the city. Possibly he’d meet her for melon and mimosas on some terrace or other. She was always able to count on him for breakfast, anyway.

  After her separation from Dallas, Anne and Randall had moved to New York. She thought her father would approve, but he showed little enthusiasm. She began to realize that he had wanted her to get away before she’d made a mess of things. Afterward made little sense to him, and he didn’t believe that people could simply walk away from serious errors in judgment. But she was a grown woman, not the little girl in whom he had dared to invest his dreams. Anne decided to move to New York and make herself forget to care about what her father thought—and, if she succeeded in doing that, maybe even forget Dan Wood. It was worth as many tries as it took.

  She was still young and pretty, and in New York there were plenty of men. Unfortunately, most were majoring in insecurity, just starting up the corporate ladder. To her surprise, many reminded her of Dallas, despite cleaner fingernails and a decent wardrobe. She didn’t meet anybody that reminded her of Dan. Or her father, for that matter. What recommended Price was that he was the first quiet man she met in the city, that and the fact that he wanted to take her out to breakfast. They had three six-thirty A.M. dates before he explained he was a professional ballplayer. Night games ruled out dinner, the theater, the movies and espresso in the Village. Anne didn’t mind. She had never got the hang of letting men she didn’t like spend money on her.

  Before being traded to the expansion Mets, Price was the property of eight other major league teams, though he’d spent the majority of his career in the minors. She met him when things were going well. The regular Met third baseman had been sidelined with an injury, and Price was installed for what he imagined would be the rest of the season. For every home game, Price left tickets for Anne and Randall at the will-call window. The boy was cautious, but given the avalanche of baseballs and autographs found it difficult to object to the new man in his mother’s life. He would’ve preferred the Yankee third baseman, but Price was some kind of ballplayer and the Mets were some kind of team and Randall was some kind of impressed. And Price wasn’t nearly as hapless as most of his teammates. He was enjoying his best season, hitting a solid 240 and getting his body in front of the screamers that invariably whistled down the third-base line off Met pitching. He knew how to play within himself and seldom tried to do anything his chunky body wasn’t capable of. Not a bad body, Anne thought, though it usually sported at least one technicolor bruise, now in the center of his chest, now the left shoulder, now the top of the thigh. Price claimed they didn’t hurt, but the center of the bruised area was always leprous white at the point of impact, radiating outward in concentric circles—dark purple, blue, green, yellow.

  By the middle of August the Mets had been out of contention for months and Price, in the middle of what was for him a hitting streak, was unaccountably benched. To Price the move defied all logic. No one on the team was playing better ball, and his re
placement, a young kid from the Dominican Republic yanked all the way up from double-A ball, seemed always on the verge of fainting. He made the sign of the cross before every pitch, clearly praying the ball would be hit to someone else. It was age, of course. Price was thirty-four, and a middle-aged journeyman infielder had no part in the team’s future. If the Mets were going to continue losing, it was better to lose with nineteen-year-olds. Price worked all of this out on the bench in September, and once the season was over, he concluded sensibly that there was no point in worrying all winter. He was seeing a girl he liked and who liked being shown around the city and introduced to the people he knew. He liked the boy, too. Price would stay in shape during the off-season and with luck get himself traded to a contending team in need of a solid veteran.

  They had a nice winter. A native Californian, Price had never liked New York, but for sightseeing it was a good city. Anne and Randall were enthusiastic and grateful. He thought little about baseball and didn’t fulfill his resolution to keep in shape. The bruises gradually disappeared, along with a dozen or so aches, and he easily convinced himself that he was mending, not loafing. When it came time to go to Florida for spring training, he knew he’d have to work hard. But he’d always had to work hard.

  He called Anne in March with the bad news. “This doesn’t mean much,” he said of his release. “It’s probably good. I’ll be better off with another team.” He’d stay in Florida for a few days, maybe a week, since people had to know where to find him. “Cheer up. Come May, I’ll probably be a Yankee,” he told Randall. “Boyer looks shaky this year.” He was back in New York a week later, though, and on opening day he took Randall to the ballpark. He paid for the tickets. “Later on, when the double headers start to stack up—–” he told the boy, letting the thought trail off.

  Anne took her two-weeks’ vacation in July. They decided on Maine and, en route, Mohawk, for the sake of Randall and his grandparents. Anne prepared Price for a cool reception. During the past year she’d written to her parents several times about Price, but when her mother wrote back, she never mentioned him. And when Anne dropped his name on the telephone, Mrs. Grouse said, “Who, dear?” Nevertheless, he fully expected to win the affections of Anne’s parents. He was frequently told he was a charming man, and had good reason to believe it; he could think of no one he’d ever wanted to like him who didn’t. In roughly half an hour after they arrived in Mohawk, he had Mrs. Grouse eating out of his hand. It was the idea that she had objected to—this person who was “with” her “married” daughter. Price himself, Mrs. Grouse discovered, was not objectionable in the least. He was neither haughty nor aloof, nor superior nor any of the things she had assumed he must be, given the fact that her daughter had selected and spoken highly of him. A five-pound box of candy, a light kiss on the cheek and she suddenly had a new son-in-law, if that’s where things were going.

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